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Art. 86, Ordre de bel ayse: Introduction

Abbreviations: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); DOML: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; FDT: French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages (Sinclair 1979); FDT-1French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages, . . . First Supplement (Sinclair 1982); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

The Anglo-Norman Order of Fair Ease follows a vogue for religious satire known in the twelfth century in the Latin works of Walter Map, Gerald of Wales, and Wirecker. Dated roughly around 1300 and known only in the Harley manuscript, this parody makes fun of the religious orders of England. Its speaker’s premise is that a new order, one better than all the others, has just been created and will be accepting initiates. It is the finest of all orders in the land because it judiciously borrows a single ordinance from the rule of each well-known order of monks, nuns, canons, and friars — that is, it takes the most appealing rule of each — to form the “Ordre de Bel Ayse.” The name is thus appropriate because the new order is pleasing in all respects. A characteristic of each English order is thus targeted for keen satire: it is adopted not as a stringent ascetic practice, but as an excuse for sanctioning an opulent, licentious way of life such as, by implication, the religious orders now enjoy. The new order shall be open only to noble persons — a way of saying “that the powerful rich have appropriated the religious orders and remade them for their own advantage and in their own images” (Scattergood 2000a, p. 197). Near the beginning, the speaker asserts that rogues and peasants will be strictly forbidden from joining the order, for when one of their class rises in authority, “There’s no more moderation in them / Than in the wolf who devours lambs” (lines 28–29). This attitude, somewhat hard to gauge in its irony, can be compared to notions on class presented in the Latin All the World’s a Chessboard (art. 109). For further discussion of this work, see Aspin, pp. 130–42; Tucker, p. 58; Turville-Petre 1996, pp. 200–01; and Scattergood 2000a, pp. 195–97.

[Fols. 121ra–122va. ANL 96. Långfors, p. 342. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quires: 13–14 (fol. 122 opens quire 14). Meter: Octosyllabic couplets. Layout: Double columns. Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 137–48; Aspin, pp. 130–42 (no. 12). Other MSS: None. Translations: Wright 1839, pp. 137–48; Aspin, pp. 138–41.]

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